Cream of the crop
SAMUEL EE picks the best cars of 2003
THERE were many automotive distractions in 2003. But unlike Steve Chia's photos, they were genuine works of art, not to mention engineering. Interactions with a few of them ended on a wistful note, tinged with an unbearable sense of yearning and a deep desire to be reunited one fine day, maybe on a winding trunk road somewhere in Malaysia. But until then, 10 of these will remain fond memories. . .
Mazda RX-8: for the price of a small Continental sedan, you get close to supercar handling
As classic as a Calatrava, yet as practical as a Submariner. No other car can switch between road and track as seamlessly. The rear-engined 911 coupe has been continually updated over its 40-year history and, today, remains one of the finest handling, everyday-use sports cars.
Adding some excitement this year was the introduction of the Turbo Cabriolet, the first in 14 years. It is the fastest open-top 911 with twin turbos and four-wheel-drive. But as with most convertibles, it will probably be driven at much lower speeds to improve visibility for other road-users.
The start of the year saw British pedigree reborn, courtesy of the Germans. BMW incorporated stylish stagecoach doors and high-tech engineering into a hallowed marque, while retaining hallmarks like the imposing grille, sybaritic interior and, most importantly, its rich heritage. The result? A classy car that's both great to drive and ride in.
This isn't the only luxury SUV worth buying but it does offer the best value. As with the Porsche Cayenne, which shares the same basic chassis, the Touareg is a proper offroad machine, unlike some soft-roaders which are nothing more than glorified station wagons.
But unlike the more powerful Cayenne, the Touareg costs substantially less. It also hasn't the same level of onroad prowess but what it has is good enough. Most importantly, the interior is sumptuous.
The epitome of the compact hatchback got even better in 2003. The fifth-generation Golf now has a creamy FSI direct-injection engine and six-speed manual or auto gearbox to add to that legendary build quality and ride comfort. You could say this is small car refinement at its best, even though the 'small car' has gotten a lot bigger.
Almost the perfect executive saloon because it doesn't have perfect styling. But it does have great gizmos like Active Steering and Dynamic Drive suspension that allow even an ordinary drive to approach sublime levels. And, of course, the back seat has extra legroom (actually, there's not much more but it's still better than nothing). With its optimum combination of power, handling and space, the 5-er is for those who don't just use their sedans for commuting purposes.
The perfect package for those who don't need the extra two doors but wouldn't mind the extra two seats. The Maserati has massive power from a V8 engine, and a clever clutchless manual six-speed transmission operated by paddle shifts and with an auto mode. The gearbox comes from Ferrari, which owns Maserati. This means the Coupe is very fast yet practical and eminently understated.
The 8 is more than enough, if you count the quirky 'suicide' doors and the amazing rotary engine. Whether the styling is confusing or not may be a moot point. However, you have to give credit to its designers for their effort - no detail was too small to embellish or emphasise, from the roof profile to the stylised triangles which pay homage to the Wankel engine.
But the arresting looks may detract from the RX8's accomplished performance. It handles so well it almost approaches supercar territory. All for something that doesn't cost much more than a small Continental sedan.
Lotus Elise 111
This glorified go-kart with its peel-off fabric roof is raw, spartan and simply electric. The mid-engined Lotus has breathtaking acceleration and superglue handling (on dry roads, at least), thanks to an aluminium chassis and fibreglass body. Sharp, accurate steering and perfectly positioned pedals complete the perfect entertainment package.
Toyota Corolla Altis
Finally, a car worthy of the 'cheap and good' label. This made-in-Thailand Toyota is spacious, luxurious, refined, and only slightly more than $70,000. It drives well and even looks better than the outgoing made-in-Japan Corolla. So who cares if it reminds some of a Bangkok 'taxi meter'? This Altis could well be a Lexus substitute.
Any Mercedes-Benz with a 7-speed gearbox
The first seven-speed automatic gearbox in the world offers improved acceleration and fuel economy with each smooth and seamless gear change. Unfortunately, only eight- and six-cylinder models will get the brilliant 7G-Tronic, while four-cylinder and V12 cars will stick to the existing five-speed auto transmission. Fortunately though, Mercedes-Benz says car prices won't go up despite the technological upgrade.